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Bigger Questions About Basic Income

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By Chris Leavenworth


Want to immediately convince all your conservative friends that you’re an out-and-out Marxist that absolutely despises capitalism? Just bring up the subject of universal basic income (UBI).


Don’t even mention your stance on it, just mention that almost every existing minimum wage job and many medium-income jobs will inevitably be automated in the next 10 to 20 years, if not sooner. Bank tellers, fast food, taxis, clerks, vehicle repair, mail delivery…you name it.


For those who aren’t familiar, UBI is a form of social security in which all citizens of a country regularly receive a set amount of money, either from the government or other public institution, in addition to any income received elsewhere.


If, for some reason, you believe mundane and repetitive labor will not be replaced by computers—or you’re not aware that it’s already happening—for the sake of this article, let’s assume it will and it is. Let’s say only half the hourly-rate positions become obsolete in the next 20 years—that’s at least 39 million evaporated jobs in just the United States. Factor in a growing population, and there will be a staggering amount of people out of work by 2030.


Despite the glaring redundancy of a person performing manual work that a computer could achieve much faster and more efficiently, many people will feel existentially at a loss knowing there’s no longer a job for them. This is because most people derive a certain amount of social meaning from their work, despite the actual value of whatever it is they do.


At the very least, work gives people a routine, keeping us busy enough to not think too hard about life or reflect on depressing thoughts. There is also the feeling of reward, having earned a paycheck that cannot be replaced with basic income.


There’s also a risk that many people simply won’t be able to cope with when they have so much free time on their hands. They will feel powerless to their circumstances and become severely depressed without a carved-out role to fill. This could lead to substance abuse and crime.


On the other hand, for someone who’d embrace the freedom and can see life outside of a daily 9-to-5, a Universal Basic Income will present vast opportunities to study, write, invent, stay healthy and discover new interests. Just as there are people who derive purpose in manual labor, there are also many people who find a deeper, much richer meaning not being tied down to something purely to make ends meet.


Unfortunately, many people who feel this way have no choice—that is, if they want to have health insurance and bills paid for their family, they better get to work.


The late Stephen Jay Gould once said, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweat shops.” There’s no telling how many innovations and novel ideas have been squandered due to the insistence of manual labor.


There’s also the question of whether basic income is even a feasible model. Many experts have said that although basic income will become a necessity in the future, it will only be supplemental. People will still have to find other ways to earn income, and not everyone will be savvy enough to make that happen.


The dilemma of jobs disappearing will only become more relevant as time goes forward.

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